Deuteronomy 12 - The LORD's Chosen Place for Covenant Worship
But you shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go.Deuteronomy 12:5
Deuteronomy 12-26: The Father's Heart Revealed in the Father's Law
The book of Deuteronomy is really a thirty-four chapter sermon that Moses preached to Israel on the banks of the Jordan River. It was preached at a time in Israel's life when a lot of history had already happened. For centuries, reaching all the way back to Paradise, God's electing hand had been guiding Israel's destiny. His pattern was uniform: every selection had entailed rejection — Seth, not Cain; Shem, not Ham and Japheth; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not Esau.
And Israel, not any other nation.
This chosen nation was about to enter a chosen land. But God's people needed to learn how to live as 'a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that (they) may proclaim the praises of Him who called (them) out of darkness into His marvelous light' (1 Peter 2:9). And that was why Moses was preaching this sermon that we know as the book of Deuteronomy.
This series of Bible studies will deal with the heart of Moses' sermon. Often with other Bible books we study important sections or parts, like the Sermon on the Mount, or the Letters to the Seven Churches. In Deuteronomy 12-26, we'll hear and feel our Father's heart beating in love for His children, with whom He has made covenant and whom He has brought to the promised land. Although the lesson exposition won't proceed verse by verse, it's very important that you read the passages underlying our comments.
The theme of these Bible studies is 'The Law of the LORD as Our Delight.' We want to learn how and why God's law should be, and can be, our joy. This idea is beautifully expressed over and over in that great Bible poem that praises God's law: Psalm 119. (Question 1)
The Unique Festivity of Sanctuary Worship (Read 12:1-7)
Deuteronomy 1-11 narrates the historical background of God's covenantal relationship with Israel. Moses rehearses Israel's exodus and wilderness rebellions, God's repeated displays of power, and His promises of blessing upon Israel's obedience and curse upon her apostasy.
Finally, in Deuteronomy 12:1, Moses arrives at the heart, the center of his sermon: 'These are the statutes and judgments which you shall be careful to observe in the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth.'
Notice how these 'statutes and judgments' begin: by stipulating where Israel is to worship God. God's principle of selection-and-rejection would now be the pattern for Israel's religious life! In verses 2-4 we read that, upon entering God's land of promise, Israel was required to 'clean His house,' so to speak. By getting rid of the pagan shrines and altars, thereby destroying every trace of Canaan's God-hating religion, Israel was to make room for 'the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His habitation; and there you shall go' (12:5). Israel's 'negative obedience' (executing God's wrath upon the Canaanites) was to serve her 'positive obedience' (faithful worship). (Question 2)
God's chosen location for Israel's worship was the tabernacle, which housed the ark of the covenant containing the tablets of law, Aaron's budding rod, and the bowl of manna. Later in Israel's history, the Jerusalem temple would be the LORD'S house.
To this select place Israel was to bring her various offerings, stipulated by God Himself. Then in verse 7 we read this astonishing command: 'And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the LORD your God has blessed you.'
Why is this so unique? Because pagan worship was designed solely to please the gods. In pagan religion, the worshiper doesn't count. The worshipers offer the sacrifice; the gods get the pleasure.
In this commandment, God stipulates a peculiar worship, one that permits (even commands!) joy and includes the enjoyment of divine blessing upon our labor. Three times in this chapter, God's people are commanded to rejoice before the LORD at His sanctuary (vv. 7, 12, 18). This brings to mind the familiar call to worship:
Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands!
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.
Unlike the religion of ancient and modern pagans, the worship of God's people may not arise from fear. Joy and festivity were to characterize Israel's blessing of her God. Every notion that Israel's worship was supposed to be staid, merely external or ritualized, is wide of the mark!
The Spiritual Unity of Sanctuary Fellowship (Read 12:8-12)
But Israel must also outgrow the liturgical disarray of her wilderness period. 'You shall not at all do as we are doing here today — every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes — for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you' (vv. 8-9).
Crossing the Jordan into Canaan would mark more than a geographical change for Israel. Life in this new land required her liturgical reformation! The 'excuse' for liturgical individualism up until now was that she had not yet come into her inheritance. But Canaan brought with it new responsibilities and structures.
Again Israel's attention is directed to the LORD'S select place for worship (see vv. 10-11). But now notice the social context of liturgical joy: 'And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion nor inheritance with you' (v. 12). Already in the Old Testament Israel's worship was to reflect unity in human relationships before the face of the LORD!
If everyone did what was right in his own eyes, there would be no people of God, but only a crowd of individuals. But if one God is being worshiped in one place, then He bestows oneness upon His people, no matter what their social class: 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all' (Ephesians 4:5-6). This unity of sanctuary fellowship described in Deuteronomy 12:12 is made full in Jesus Christ (to whom the sanctuary points!), even as Paul says: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28).
Cultural Freedom Beyond Sanctuary Sacrifice (Read 12:13-28)
To our ears, verses 13-14 sound like mere repetition: 'Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the LORD chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.'
But this directive serves to introduce a divine permission of astonishing proportions: 'However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike' (v. 15).
The LORD teaches His people that, in contrast to the cultic totalitarianism of paganism, not every place is a sanctuary, and not everything serves the cult. (In these studies, cult refers to a system of religious rites and ceremonies, not to a group captivated by false teachings.) Israel may enjoy the festive fellowship of eating at home too! The LORD'S intended joy was not to be restricted to the space called 'sanctuary' or the time called 'holy days.' Joyful fellowship was accessible for everybody (even the unclean, who might not enter the sanctuary!) at ordinary times and places. Even meat not permitted for sacrifices (gazelle and deer) was edible at home.
Thereby, God's people enjoyed freedom from cultic or liturgical domination. Not that any part of life was free from God's oversight and law, but certainly from religious ritual. (Question 3)
'Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water' (v. 16). With this single restriction upon eating meat at home, the LORD introduces the element of atonement. For in the Bible, blood represents atonement. Central to Israel's worship was the sacrificial system, whose effective element was the blood, offered in atonement for sin as it was poured on the altar (see v. 27).
Here we have a portrait of the cross of Jesus Christ. The source of Israel's (our) joy, unity, and freedom is the blood of atonement. All of these lines, drawn in Deuteronomy 12, meet at the cross. The cross lies at the heart of Deuteronomy 12. From all those animal sacrifices, God's people may take the meat (festive enjoyment), but the blood (sacrificial death) is for God.
In verses 17-18 God teaches us the grace of tithing. Notice the emphasis: 'You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain...' Where then? 'But you must eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God chooses...,' along with all the members of the household, with festive celebration. Once again we see the peculiarity, the uniqueness of Israel's religion, deriving from the uniqueness of Israel's God. Whereas Canaan's gods consumed all the offerings for themselves, God's children could, after sharing with the Levite (v. 19), enjoy God's food in God's house.
In verses 20-28, the application of this same instruction shifts a bit, indicated in verse 21: 'If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, then you may slaughter from your herd and from your flock which the LORD has given you, just as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your gates as much as your heart desires.'
This was more than a physical concession by the LORD. The gracious purpose of this command was to permit Israel to inhabit, cultivate and exercise dominion over the land of Canaan. You see, if every sacrifice must be brought to the cultic center, God's children would never get any work done! A society dominated by cultic ritual never develops or expands. But Israel's God is a gracious God: the Creator entrusts His creation to His people. Here, the LORD prevents Israel's culture from being obstructed by her cult — or stated positively: the LORD permits Israel's society to become a culture by freeing her for living beyond the cult. (Question 4)
But the prohibition regarding blood remains (vv. 23-25), to remind Israel that her cultural freedom proceeds from the sanctuary, where effective sacrificial atonement is both rendered and received.
The Father's Tender Love for His Children (Read 12:29-32)
Deuteronomy 12 could easily be classified under the Second Commandment, which teaches us how God is to be worshiped. The chapter closes with a poignant prohibition that is a mirror-image of the positive duty. Israel is not to worship the Canaanite way, killing their children as a religious offering. The LORD is no Molech who is satisfied when parents sacrifice their own flesh to dispel His anger (v. 31). Molech only takes; the LORD gives. The LORD is a Father whose love for His people is gracious, tender and compassionate, blessing their childlike obedience.
How tempting it was for Israel to 'study' the Canaanites' liturgical and cultic habits, adapting a few here, adopting a few there. Surely the apostle Paul's observation about the law's power was felt among Israel in Canaan, where God pointedly identified local practices forbidden to His children: 'I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet" (Romans 7:7). Would Israel have been tempted to follow Canaanite practices if the LORD hadn't so specifically forbidden them? Of one thing we may be sure: Israel's later apostasy was not caused by the 'knowledge' imparted through the law. Instead, Israel learns here — and we with her — just how thoroughly the LORD knows our hearts, and just how depraved our hearts are!
How gracious, then, are the laws of our LORD, also those regulating the manner of worship! What joy, what unity and fellowship, what freedom God's people experience through Christ's cross as they love Him and keep His commandments!
Questions for Reflection and Reply
Using a concordance, find and write out the verses in Psalm 119 that speak of the LORD'S law as the believer's delight. Put in your own words some of the reasons God's law makes His children happy.
In light of Deuteronomy 12:2-4, how far should Christian missionaries go in trying to adapt the gospel message to fit with local pagan religious customs? Are there situations where compromise is possible, or is a total break with pagan habits always required? Can you find evidence from the book of Acts to support your answer?
Are we perhaps too free from religious ritual? Doesn't extensive ritual help us to focus on God more regularly? Are God's children helped by specified times and places of prayer throughout the day; or by utensils like rosaries, crosses, or prayer books; or by special articles of clothing, like the yarmulke (Jewish skullcap)? Why (not)?
Describe modern societies that remain undeveloped because of pagan religion. How has the Christian faith produced cultural development? What will be some consequences for science, education and industry, of the resurgence of paganism in our day?